It is easy to consider Ruth Bader Ginsburg as simply an icon or caricature. The large glasses, delicate lace collar and crisp black cloak have come to stand for something defiant and optimistic in increasingly scary times. Rather than the flash-in-the-pan, viral celebrities of today, Ginsburg has endured as a visionary and trailblazer for over half a century. Appointed to the US Supreme Court in 1993, after years as a successful lawyer and judge, Justice Ginsburg was only the second woman to take the position on the highest court, but her widespread celebrity came much later in life. In RBG, filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen assemble a love letter to the beacon of equality; carefully deconstructing the icon to reveal the person at the centre.
RBG is positive and uplifting. The documentary itself does not push any boundaries, but it doesn’t need to – the story of the ‘Notorious RBG’ speaks for itself. Looking at each of Ginsburg’s historic cases in turn, the documentary charts how she spearheaded progress for women and minorities throughout her career. When she began at Harvard Law School as only one of nine women in a class of 500 men, it was legal to discriminate against women on the basis of gender. Now, thanks in large parts to her efforts, the United States is ever-closer to equality for all. However, the film does not shy away from the country’s recent turn to the right nor the weakening of several crucial laws – not least because Justice Ginsburg has been the principal voice of dissent against these right-leaning rulings. Although the documentary is clearly against this reactionary turn, it capitalises on these developments to bolster Ginsburg’s vital position within the Supreme Court. Without her, the US really would be in trouble.
As the film portrays Ginsburg breaking down barriers and enacting meaningful change, her influence and impact is breathtakingly clear. But watching the film in early 2019, it is impossible to forget the Justice’s current situation. At 85, after falling and breaking three ribs, doctors discovered she had lung cancer. Ginsburg underwent surgery and is said to be making a recovery, but she has missed at least a month’s worth of cases. For the first time since being appointed to the Supreme Court (and successfully defeating two other bouts of cancer without any impact on her work), she has missed sessions in the chamber. Of course, this isn’t in the documentary, but it hovers ominously over the film’s resolutely optimistic portrait of the octogenarian.
Described as a ‘real-life superhero’ and a ‘cyborg’ by those who know her well, the film takes pains to show how much RBG dedicates herself to her work. With relentless sessions in the gym, late nights pouring over legal books and a never-ending stream of panels, interviews, talks and guest appearances (even at her beloved opera!), the documentary depicts a workaholic who refuses to let anything slow her down. Now, knowing something has finally knocked her back, her determination to stay on the Supreme Court while she can continue ‘full steam’ feels worryingly precarious. Just what can she manage now? Not for the first time in her life, the political pressure for her to continue is a pressing concern.
The documentary is even more poignant for its affectionate take on Ginsburg’s relationship with her late husband, Marty. Through home videos, family photographs, letters and speeches, West and Cohen allow the couple’s undying love and mutual support for one another to shine. RBG reveals much of their relationship through the eyes of their children and grandchildren, pulling at the heartstrings of anyone who grew up in a similar family unit. In these moments, the Ginsburgs seem like an adorable, life-long couple, who just happened to improve the lives of millions of Americans along the way. Their inside jokes and devotion are genuine and palpable. It’s incredibly romantic and inspiring. The family have it all, but only because each partner sacrificed themselves for the other when needed– something that would still be seen as progressive within modern heterosexual relationships.
Ultimately, RBG is a powerful portrait of one of the most influential figures in twentieth century America. Before ‘Notorious RBG’ or Kate McKinnon’s impression on Saturday Night Live, a first-generation, Jewish immigrant woman fought for what she believed in and made a difference in the world. The documentary acknowledges that with hard-work and dedication, it is possible to speak truth to power, and offers powerful inspiration to encourage others to do the same. Right now, though, it remains to be seen what more the Justice has left to give to the nation she has served so faithfully for 50 years.
RBG is released on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD on Monday 18th February